Online and Offline Police Reporting Comprehensive Guide
Documentation is the basis of the legal system and police reports constitute the bulk of the criminal portion. These reports are written records that compile information supporting arrests, arraignments, and prosecution of criminal behavior, from petty theft to online stalking to violent acts.
Crime Statistics in the US
Crime in the United States has dropped precipitously in the past 25 years, both violent acts and property crimes. Still, police struggle to keep up with the demands of recording, documenting, and researching incidents to pursue justice. Now technology allows some departments to prioritize immediate concerns over lower-level incidents by taking online reports (this is generally offered in larger cities).
A crime “tip” or important piece of information relating to a crime or criminal may not require a full report, and may not require that you disclose your identity. If you know of a person victimizing others, who has been involved in crimes, or has stolen property in his possession, this information may be considered a “tip” for police to investigate and is treated differently than a report. A report is generally filed by or on behalf of the crime victim.
911 vs. 311: When to Call?
In the United States, dialing 9-1-1 should trigger an immediate emergency response: if you cannot talk, police and medical services may automatically be sent to your location if you are using a landline or in certain locations that can trace a cell phone signal. Some jurisdictions allow text or sms messages to 9-1-1 as well.
If you do not need an immediate emergency response, you may want to dial 3-1-1 instead. In some cities this number will connect you to city services for things like pothole repair, to report graffiti, missing street signs, and to ask questions.
Emergencies vs. Petty Crimes
If there’s a crime taking place, particularly if it’s violent or if people have been harmed, immediately call 9-1-1. Similarly, if a crime took place within 24 hours and there is evidence for police to collect, such as fingerprints, blood samples, or bullet casings, then you should also contact police immediately through 9-1-1. Hate crimes that target individuals due to race, gender, or age may also be considered emergency situations and should be reported immediately. Be aware that cell phone calls to 9-1-1 usually cannot be traced the way that landline calls may be.
If the crime happened last week, if it’s something nonviolent like vandalism, stealing a wallet, or a motor vehicle accident without injuries, you may submit a police report online or in person during business hours at the police or sheriff’s department that has jurisdiction in the location where the incident took place. These reports are not reviewed immediately, so police will not respond within minutes when it is submitted. Local law enforcement sets the rules about what types of crimes can be reported online.
Police reports can be important documents for insurance claims if your property was damaged or stolen. If you submit a police report you should keep a copy for your records. It is necessary to include contact information when submitting a report online.
How to Submit a Police Report?
Information for police reports is collected in person, online, or over the telephone.
If you’re unsure whether to submit a police report online or appear at a police station, call the local police or sheriff’s department’s non-emergency business telephone number or your city’s 3-1-1 line and ask.
The police or sheriff’s business telephone number is generally answered by a dispatcher or officer on duty who will direct you to the right person or website to consult. Likewise, you may walk into a police station to ask rather than calling.
It is important to make a report as soon as possible after the incident takes place in case police need to gather more evidence. In some cases, such as petty crimes, police may not follow up on information that is more than a year old. For violent crimes like rape or murder there is no time limit.
If an incident requires a police report, someone may help you write your portion of the report.
They may also direct you to a website where you may fill in the necessary information or provide a form to fill out and return. Important points to include are:
- Who you are and how you know about the crime you are reporting (you cannot file a report based on hearsay, you must be directly involved or a witness)
- Who you believe committed the crime (if you know)
- What you observed that makes you believe a crime has been committed
- When you became aware of the crime you are reporting
- If you have evidence that police may consider, whether photos, online documents or images, or other information available to support your report
If you have documents to submit with your police report, an officer may ask you to come to the police station or to make copies and deliver them electronically or by mail. This information will become evidence submitted to a prosecutor with the police report – if police deem the incident worthy of pursuing.
The Police Report Process
Once a report is filed, police will assign an officer and follow up on the information. An officer may contact you to confirm the information you’ve submitted, including visiting the site and viewing the evidence in person. If you witnessed someone committing the crime you may be asked to identify the person from a photo lineup or in person at the police station.
Your report will be collected with all other information and evidence, including statements from other people, laboratory reports, and video (if any) for police to present to a district attorney for an arrest warrant. The district attorney will follow up on the information and decide what charges to pursue. If a trial ensues you may be called to testify as a witness.
Reports for minor auto accidents that are self-reported are unlikely to get any attention from police. These are archived and may be requested for insurance purposes.
When your portion of a police report is completed, ask for a copy to make sure that the information is correct and accurate. If it is not accurate or if you need to add some information, you may write a supplemental report with any additions or corrections and ask that it be attached to the original report. On your supplement, include the number of the original report as well as the name of the officer who prepared it or who is assigned to the case.
Consequences of Filing a False Report in the US
Knowingly filing a false report or giving false information to a police officer is a criminal offense, including using a fake name. Some people may try filing a false report for purposes of an alibi, to collect insurance money by claiming a car was stolen, to cover up bad bookkeeping by saying goods were shoplifted, or to intimidate a spouse or neighbor by claiming they were harassing. In general, false reports on a misdemeanor case may result in misdemeanor charges of lying to police while making a false report on a felony case may result in commensurate felony charges.
- Cell phones and 9-1-1: http://www.nena.org/?page=911Cellphones
- Using text or sms to reach 9-1-1: https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/what-you-need-know-about-text-911
- Typical scenarios for false reports: https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/false-allegations-of-adult-crimes
- California penal code regarding filing false reports: http://sanfranciscopolice.org/california-penal-code-section-1485-pc
- 2016 Crime Statistics - https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2016-crime-statistics-released
- Crime Types and Statistics - https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tdtp&tid=3
- Hate Crime Statistics - https://catalog.data.gov/dataset/hate-crimes-by-county-and-bias-type-beginning-2010
- First response to victims of crime: An Officer’s Guide - https://ovc.gov/publications/infores/pdftxt/2010FirstResponseGuidebook.pdf
- Response to Hate Crime - https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/hate-crime/pages/research-findings.aspx
- Crime Reporting By Type - https://www.usa.gov/report-crime
- 311 Mobile app - https://ouc.dc.gov/page/dc311-mobile-app
- Using 911 Appropriately - https://www.911.gov/using911appropriately.html